April 2018

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Listening with Heart

I live mostly in my head: I’m a thinker. (See me tapping my temple with my index finger.) I analyze and ponder. For this, I get along well in “the academy” with professors and researchers and others who, like me, lead with their heads.

However, this week, in my “Empowerment for Students with Disabilities” class, the professor is requiring us to select one of twelve stances to practice and reflect on, and I’ve selected “Listening with Heart.”

Though I mostly try to be kind, this assignment challenges my usual way of being in the world. My ears, I’ve noticed, are closer to my brain than to my heart, so listening with my heart seems physiologically difficult: I try to imagine an ear at my heart, but that just seems like something that Frida Kahlo might paint.

I decided to give it a go, and on Sunday afternoon, my partner Ann, our friend Chris, and I went to a discussion on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at the Northwest African-American Museum. Sponsored by Book-It Theatre, which is now performing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Uncensored, the museum and the Central district location offered the possibility that we—all three of us white women—would hear diverse perspectives from African Americans.

As the meeting room filled with maybe fifty people, however, I noticed that few of those attending were people of color. I was disappointed, though I know that it’s not really fair to expect African-Americans to show up so that I can understand. Just as the meeting started, a smartly dressed older African-American woman sat at the other end of our row, and I was glad to see her there. I liked her red hat. I hoped she would speak.

The moderator, Sharon Williams, was a young woman in her twenties or thirties who opened with the declaration that this would be a safe space for a challenging discussion. She seemed wise, and I appreciated her optimism, both in proclaiming that the space would be safe and foreseeing that the discussion would be challenging. She spoke with such heart that I wanted to believe her optimism, but my brain kept getting the way: “How is she so sure?” I thought but then I reminded myself: “Listen with heart. Listen with heart.”

Four panelists opened the discussion with ten-minute reflections on Huck, truth-telling in American History (and the lack thereof), censorship, and racism. It was an impressive panel: David Bradley, a white-bearded African-American Professor of Fiction at The University of Oregon; Dr. Jocelyn Chadwick, an African-American woman who has taught English for over 30 years, starting at Irving High School in Texas and now teaching at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (you’ve probably heard of Harvard); Shelley Fisher Fishkin, a white Professor of English and Director of American Studies at Stanford (you’ve probably heard of Stanford, too); and Nancy Rawles, an African-American Seattle-ite who wrote the novel My Jim, telling the story of the slave Jim from the perspective of Jim’s wife (She’s also a writer in the schools, so she teaches history and writing to high school and college students, too, but she doesn't have a fancy label, and they didn't fly her in. )

The first three panelists spoke compellingly about Huck and its importance in the American story, and as I listened, I found that I could listen with my brain and didn’t have to try that funny task of listening with my heart.  I know the academy, and these were my peeps. Or at least I wanted them to be.

They were smart. Dang smart. (I’d like to take classes from each of them, but since none of them are from Seattle, that’s not likely.) I started wondering why Book-It had flown in such an impressive group, and as they talked I suspected that their stance was Book-It’s stance.

Each of the first three panelists argued that we should teach Huck because the novel, written after the Emancipation Proclamation but situated in the time and place of slavery, teaches us about our national history and about universal truths: we humans are often blind to our own bigotry; our nation in its American History textbooks and curricula hides are unpleasant inhumanity, encouraging such blindness; if we censor Huck we are complicit in promoting this blindness.

Then the fourth speaker, Nancy Rawles, began, and her manner and credentials distinguished her from the other three. She said, “I have decided to speak from my emotions. I am never going to read Huck Finn again.…I found the reading to be painful when I was a child. It was presented as a boy’s book, an extension of Tom Sawyer….As an adult, I was taken aback by the language….Ten years ago, a grandmother objected to this book in her granddaughter’s class. I’ve started thinking as a parent of an African-American child in the Northwest, where we have proportionally fewer African-Americans and where some black students will be the only African-American student in a class of white students….

As I listened to Nancy Rawles, I listened with my head and my heart. I thought, “And most of those students—even those in predominately black classrooms--will have white teachers. I was a white teacher myself, and I taught Huck Finn. I don’t think I can understand how this book feels for a black person.” I recall hearing a Harvard University professor remind me of the first rule of teaching: “Do no harm.” I wonder when I have done harm, and I wonder if the academic arguments are stronger than this harm. As I listen to my heart, I think teaching this book is wrong.

As I’m listening to my heart, the older African-American woman at the end of my row stands and speaks: “I am that grandmother. I came today because I suspected that my perspective would not be well-represented, and with the exception of Ms. Rawles, each of you on the panel has spoken in support of this book. This book degrades the children. There’s a new book called The New Jim Crow that does a better job of talking about race than this novel….”

My head interrupts her to say (to myself), “That’s an excellent book, but it’s not a great American novel and won’t be accessible to many high school students.”  My heart tells me to keep listening, so I tune back in to the grandmother.

“When I was in that white woman’s class [her granddaughter’s teacher was the white woman, I gathered], she was salivating to get to the word “nigger”…. My granddaughter had to go to an all-Black college....I look around the room now, and not many people look like me. That should tell you something. We’re through with Huck.”

My heart hears her anger.

The intellectual conversation among panelists and white people in the audience rebuts the grandmother’s argument:

“I had conversations in the 1990s about Twain with Ralph Ellison who had a portrait of Twain over his desk and said that Twain resonated with him, and he never would have been the writer he was without Twain.”…

“When we start talking about Huck, we start talking about schools….”

Huck Finn is the reason that I did not go to the Vietnam War….”

“Here’s the problem: parents think they’re gonna know who their children are going to be, and the parents are wrong….”

“Where do we stop? Lorraine Hansberry? Alice Walker? Martin Luther King, Jr.? Thomas Jefferson?...Do we just teach happy literature? Literature is supposed to move me to act, as Aristotle says literature should….”

“Most of us in the academy think that a reasoned explanation will be convincing. [audience laughter]…”

As I listen to them, I think that their arguments are compelling, but my heart returns to the grandmother and her righteous indignation.

An African-American man in his thirties speaks from the row behind me. He speaks with his heart, and I listen with mine: “When I was in high school, I was the only African-American in my class. An old white lady taught us, and she wouldn’t say the “n” word, so when she read aloud and came to that word, there’d be this long awkward pause. It was so painful.”

There’s that word again: painful.
My head can be convinced that Huck is necessary, but my heart cannot. “Do no harm,” I think again.



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